Successive Administrations have used economic sanctions to try to change Iran’s behavior. U.S. sanctions on Iran, which are primarily “secondary sanctions” on firms that conduct certain transactions with Iran, have adversely affected Iran’s economy. The sanctions arguably have not, to date, altered Iran’s pursuit of core strategic objectives including its support for regional armed factions and its development of missiles. Arguably, sanctions did contribute to Iran’s decision to enter into a 2015 agreement that put limits on its nuclear program – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
During 2011-2015, global economic sanctions contributed to the shrinking of Iran’s economy as its crude oil exports fell by more than 50% and it could not access its foreign exchange assets abroad. In accordance with the JCPOA, the Obama Administration waived relevant sanctions and revoked relevant executive orders (E.O.s), and U.N. and European Union sanctions were lifted as well. Remaining in place were U.S. sanctions on direct trade with Iran and on Iran’s support for regional armed factions, its human rights abuses, and on its efforts to acquire missile and advanced conventional weapons technology. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, kept in place an existing ban on its importation or exportation of arms (until October 18, 2020) and a non-binding restriction on Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles (until October 18, 2023). The sanctions relief enabled Iran to increase its oil exports to nearly pre-sanctions levels, regain access to its foreign exchange funds, and order some new passenger aircraft.